Editor's Note: In the run-up to the new year, Crosscut is sharing ten days of its best stories from 2011, each with a different theme. Today we are looking at coverage of the changing Northwest. This story, by Crosscut writer Robin Lindley, first appeared August 3.
LESCHI-Judicially Murdered Feb. 19, 1858
—Tombstone of Chief Leschi, Nisqually Leader
“Behind these words lies an essential story for all who are passionate about tolerance, dignity and justice,” writes Seattle author and attorney Michael Schein, in reference to Chief Leschi’s grim tombstone inscription.
In his new novel Bones Beneath Our Feet (Bennett and Hastings Publishing), Schein tells the story of Leschi, a brilliant orator and native leader, who faced off against the mercurial and ambitious first territorial governor of Washington, Isaac Ingall Stevens.
Schein’s tale grows out of the clash of native and white cultures in Washington Territory in the 1850s. Gov. Stevens was charged with removing native peoples from their ancestral lands and consigning them to reservations that were unsuitable for their fishing and other traditional means of sustaining their lives.
Chief Leschi, of the Nisqually tribe, was initially welcoming to white American settlers or “Bostons,” as the natives referred to them, but he objected to the Medicine Creek Treaty of 1854 that assigned his tribe to a small, barren reservation that was cut off from the sacred river where the Nisquallys had fished for generations. For Leschi, the treaty was a result of duplicity, threat, and manipulation by the Bostons, led by Stevens.
Leschi pledged to resist Stevens' removal policy and led native people in a series of skirmishes in the Puget Sound War of 1855-1856. Leschi evaded capture for months, to the chagrin of an ever more wrathful Stevens, but was eventually betrayed by a relative and arrested.
After his apprehension, Leschi was charged with the “murder” of an American volunteer soldier, A. B. Moses, who was killed in a skirmish with Indians in October 1855. The evidence against Leschi was tenuous and the killing occurred during a wartime incident involving two combatant forces. The first trial of Leschi ended in a hung jury. But Leschi was convicted of murder following a second trial, and was executed by hanging on February 19, 1858.
In 2004, a special historical court of inquiry exonerated Chief Leschi on the charge of murder on the basis that both he and Moses were legal combatants in a war. State Supreme Court Justice Gerry Alexander announced the decision, stating, "Chief Leschi should not, as a matter of law, have been tried for the crime of murder." The decision represented a victory in the efforts of the Nisqually tribe to clear the name of their legendary chief.
Schein’s fictionalized account of the Puget Sound War remains true to the historical record, while exploring not only the lives of Leschi and Stevens but also the loves, hopes, fears and struggles of other natives, white settlers, and military officials who figured in the conflict and the ensuing legal proceedings.
Schein is an acclaimed author, attorney and poet. He recently sat down and discussed his historical novel on Puget Sound at a Ballard coffee shop.
Lindley: What sparked your interest in the Chief Leschi case?
Schein: In 2004 I heard news reports that a historical court of inquiry was convened to look into it. That reminded me of a student paper on the Chief Leschi case when I was teaching American legal history at Seattle University. The topic was fascinating. So I watched, probably on TVW, the proceedings of the historical court of inquiry.
I became more interested and grabbed a book by Ezra Meeker called The Tragedy of Leschi that was published in 1905. Meeker was actually on the jury during the first trial of Leschi, so he knew all the players and [included] original source documents in his book. At that point I was hooked. It’s a story of our land where we live and it’s a story of injustice, so it’s got so many elements that interest me.
Lindley: Wasn’t Meeker sympathetic to Leschi?
Schein: He was. At the time, Leschi had plenty of American supporters—perhaps not the majority—but certainly a solid contingent of pioneers who felt that he was being treated unfairly and Meeker was among those.
Lindley: You’re an expert in American legal history, but you chose to tell this story in the form of a novel rather than as a history.
Schein: I love history, but sometimes I get bored just reading an accumulation of facts and dates. I feel that you can reach a wider audience with a novel and get to the emotional truth of an event in a way that you can’t with a history book. People [can] relate to events not just based on facts, but based on emotions and feelings that there are real people with real problems that are similar to theirs. You can do a strong job of that by building characters in a novel and when readers connect, they learn the history. At the same time, they get an experience to connect with and remember.
Lindley: You follow the lives of Governor Stevens and Chief Leschi in parallel sequences. How did you choose to take that approach?
Schein: It’s challenging when you have a massive amount of research and think about where to enter the story. It’s no surprise that the two main protagonists — our first Territorial Governor Isaac Stevens and then Chief Leschi of the Nisquallys — jumped out as the central characters. It is a tale of cultural misunderstanding and the fear of a group that you don’t understand that each side has. What better way to bring that to life than to trace their upbringings and show just how completely different they were in their formative experiences as youths. I sketch in Leschi immersed in a wild filled with the totems, the gods, and the spirits — a genuine experience for the Native American culture. Stevens, on the other hand, has a Western upbringing in which God is up in the sky and everything else is to be used and brought under our own order and force. He’s trained at West Point as a soldier. So they come from completely different universes at the very outset.
Lindley: You vividly depict the culture clash between these communal, interdependent natives versus the competitive, individualistic Americans or “Bostons” who were coming into the territory. Didn’t Isaac Stevens see his primary role as dispossessing the Indians of their lands so the whites could settle on them?
Schein: The Americans were called Bostons by the Native Americans and the British were called King George Men, and they were perceived by the natives as different tribes.
The King George men established trading posts and traded with the natives, but did not attempt to take over the land or change the way of life in any significant manner, and they dealt with the natives on a more equal basis.
The Bostons, on the other hand, came here to take over the land and to live, and that created tremendous natural conflicts even when there were many individual acts of kindness and generosity and well-meaning people on the side of the pioneer Bostons. It was inevitable there would be conflicts over use of land, over different beliefs in how to conduct yourself. There was a fair amount of intermarriage and yet the imposition of one culture’s beliefs over another.
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